Battleshed Diaries

Thursday 26 January 2017

Blast! That rotter, Don Paunchero!

Sharp Practice Portuguese Guerrillas

This week, I had an introduction to Sharp Practice! and an opportunity to play a scenario that’s generated much mirth and enthusiasm from other members at my wargaming club. I’ve occasionally found myself taking a quick break from whatever dice rolling I was engaged in at the time just to wander over to see what was causing such gusto. And then slightly surprised to find it was a historical game set in the black powder era, more often associated with all things studiously Napoleonic.

And now I know. Having taken on the role of the Portuguese Colonel Jose Mourhino along with his British ally to lead a ‘punitive expedition against the village of Sao Juliao for collaborating with the enemy’. Or more accurately, to flush out the portly Bandido e contrabandista, ‘El Grande Don Juan Paunchero’.  

And what an inspiring start for my inaugural game of Sharp Practice. A three-player scenario (or more!) titled ‘With Fire and Sword’, knowledgeably hosted by John Ewing, the author of the 'The Adventures of Don Paunchero’ campaign it's taken from.

The players - club stalwart, Peter, defending the village with Don Paunchero’s guerrillas, myself with the Portuguese and fellow Sharp Practice! newbie, David R, controlling the allied British force under Captain Robert Dundas – described as ‘a bit of a rotter’ in the accompanying character notes!

And this is where one of the key facets of Sharp Practice distinguishes itself from other rulesets set in this period. As Richard Clarke from Lard Island puts it in his introduction, ‘the exploits of heroic leaders whose derring-do and bravery would become the stuff of legend’ and ‘Command & Control is the most important part of the game’. One does wonder why I’m attracted to such a game then!

Sharp Practice Anglo-Portuguese
For those unfamiliar, Sharp Practice! (on its second iteration), is from Too Fat Lardies and is a set of large skirmish rules set in the Black Powder era, 1700 – 1865. It’s a D6, card (or poker chip), activated system where players set up forces which represent a detachment or independent column engaged in activities and missions near the main army.

The base mechanics are kept deliberately simple and intuitive to minimise distraction from your command, um, ‘decisions’. Basically, rolling a bunch of D6 for every model shooting or taking part in fisticuffs, adding in any extra dice modifiers for Officers and checking the relevant table to score a hit, cause Shock, or kill opposing models. It’s the ‘shock’ factor here that is key to winning in Sharp Practice. So I’m told.

Shock represents the loss of morale and group cohesion and is applied to individual groups. Have more shock on a group than it has men, then they'll start to get the wobblies and making lots of grumbly 'strategic’ withdrawals. This, in turn, will impact the entire Force Morale. It’s down to the characteristics of the individual officers leading their groups or formations to rally their men via the strategic use of Leader and Command cards, randomly drawn until the Tiffin card comes, signifying the end of the ‘chapter’ or turn.

Any scale can be used from, say 10mm to 40mm, and a typical core detachment will consist of 40-50 figures, although this is subject to the scenario restrictions of course. Small scale skirmish players may shudder at the thought (I know a couple who do, not mentioning any names!) but this force size is typical of larger skirmish systems. And for me, it provides an opportunity to collect and paint a ‘black powder’ force and get it onto the tabletop quickly, without being deterred by all those huge but daunting Napoleonic games often seen at wargames shows. And, being Black Powder, it can include anything from the French Indian Wars up to the American Civil War for example.

That’s a very brief game mechanic overview; yes, unusual for me, I know! There’s a lot more to it but, hopefully you get the idea. I plan to take my time learning Sharp Practice! and with only a single multiplayer game in hand, I do not feel I can justify a detailed review just yet. It’ll take a fair few games for that! So what of the notorious Don Paunchero?

The Setup:  For this, it’s best left to John’s captivating scenario overview:

With Fire and Sword. The Portuguese commander Colonel Jose Mourhino has finally persuaded the authorities to allow him to lead a punitive expedition against the village of Sao Juliao for collaborating with the enemy. He leads a small force of Portuguese Line Infantry plus a covering group of Cacadores. He has enlisted the aid of Captain Robert "Light fingered" Dundas, a somewhat nefarious British officer, with promises of a share of the loot from the village gained from its inhabitants smuggling activities. Dundas leads a small force of British Infantry from the Light Company of the 1st Loamshires, whose nickname The "We'll 'Ave It" Lads  has been earned on many a battlefield and siege in their not so distinguished history.

The game is a variant of the Fighting Withdrawal scenario in Dawns & Departures, the new Sharp Practice campaign supplement. Don Paunchero's Guerrillas have to delay the Anglo-Portuguese force on its approach to the village until further aid can arrive. Colonel Mourhino and Captain Dundas' men have to fight their way through any blockade to exit the table so that they can attack, burn and pillage the village later.
Sharp Practice British and Portuguese Line Infantry
Scenario Forces and Objectives: I had the Portuguese under Colonel Mourhino, Level 3, leading a force of 4 Groups of Line Fuzileiros plus a Group of Atiradores (with Baker Rifles) under Sergeant Eusebio, Level 2. Assisted by Sergeant Mondego, Level 1, and Tenente (Lieutenant) Ronaldo, Level 2. Their objective was ‘bring your troops safely through the Devil's Defile brushing aside any enemy who seeks to bar your path’ Quite happy with that! Reminded me of many a holiday to Portugal, north and south! Without the musketry.

David R had the British under Captain Dundas, Level 3, leading 2 Groups of British Light Infantry in Line, with a third Group of Light Infantry skirmishers led by Sergeant Hawkwood, Level 1, and a small detachment of 95th Rifles under Lieutenant Ponsonby-Smythe, Level 2. Their objective ostensibly was to assist the Portuguese. In reality, it was to ‘lead your men through the mountains with as few losses as possible to loot the village of Sao Juliao’!

Finally, veteran club member Peter had only the defence of the poor local villagers in mind, with Sancho Panza, Level 2, Jose and Gregorio (Level 1) with 4 Groups of experienced Guerrillas immediately available. Don Paunchero (Level 3) will arrive later with 1 Group of experienced Guerrillas and 2 Groups of hastily raised civilians. Their objective was simple, ‘aim is to delay the enemy as long as possible and inflict as much damage as possible to allow time for reinforcements to be gathered in the Arronches Valley below, gaining victory points for each enemy soldier killed and double their Status level for any Leader rendered hors d' combat.

AAR: For this game, John was using wood chits drawn from a bag rather than the game cards. The initial deployment points are determined by the game mechanics and types of scenario, where groups - once their Leader chit is drawn - can deploy a set number of inches from the DP depending on type of troops. 

This is another system where unit activation is random and can easily put to rest any elaborate ‘cunning’ plans being devised by the commanders. In this case, David R and myself! We kind of had the vague strategy of combining most of our strength on our left flank, using the road to the Devil’s Defile to move quickly in column and push forward, leaving our skirmishers and light infantry to flank and pin any enemy guerrillas lurking in the nearby woods and hills. Speed was the key!

Sharp Practice Bristish Line Infantry
Instead, we found ourselves facing many, many guerrillas occupying the high ground on both sides of the defile before the line units could even set off. In fact, Captain Dundas’ men spent an arm-achingly long time presenting arms and squinting into the shimmering hills before Dundas decided the nearest Guerrillas that had been brazenly taking pot shots at him and his men had in fact buggered off before they could actually fire a volley!

Whilst the sweating Portuguese were relieved to unshoulder their heavy muskets, Colonel Mourhino’s forces started to arrive on the scene. Much to Dundas delight. He was beginning to think they’d actually have some soldiering to do! The Portuguese soon deployed forward onto the British right flank and into line with Mourhino and Montego, supported by Ronaldo’s group to the rear. With messengers galloping between the allied formations, the plan had the majority of the light troops quickly moving up towards the woods and hills on the centre right, leaving the main forces to deal with the defile on the left. So far so good.

After a few opening exchanges of fire – cascading volleys from both the Portuguese and the British lines, sporadic but effective fire raining down from Sancho Panza's guerrillas using the cover provided by the craggy hills and acrid, thick smoke curling throughout the battlefield (cleverly used as 'reload' markers for the slow powder weapons) – both sides started to take the odd casualty and the stress on individual units was starting to build.

A few turns of this musketry and soon Panza's guerrillas shrewdly began a steady, stepped fighting withdrawal along with Jose and Gregorio's men back towards the allied-presumed walled village of Sao Juliao nestled in the low valley on the other side of the Devil’s Ravine. They’d successfully stalled the enemy and now hoped to draw them into a cauldron on enfiladed fire as the allies exited the narrow ravine in tight formation, led by Mourinhio, with Dundas happy to let the Portuguese take point.

In the centre, Lieutenant Ponsonby-Smythe’s 95th Rifles had made an impressively long sprint through rough terrain to try and occupy a key hill position recently vacated by a group of the guerrillas. Not to be outdone, Sergeant Hawkwood’s Light Infantry skirmishers confidently pushed towards a central wood occupied by yet more guerrillas, given the crackle of musketry and smoke billowing from the edges of its dark confines. 

And on the extreme left, Sergeant Eusebio’s rifled Atiradores had spotted a large formation of the enemy gathering on a hill, at extreme rifle range. In between them and the hill was a large area of a boggy mire, which Eusebio decided was too impassable to risk despoiling his uniform. Instead, the Portuguese skirmishes satisfied themselves with tickling the enemies extreme left flank with lead.

Reluctantly, Ronaldo’s Line Fuzileiros were ordered to support the skirmishers instead of the main column, so they smartly followed O sargento britânico Hawkwood’s Light Infantry, now penetrating the woods. But the devilish guerrillas had anticipated the move, and fearing the cold steel up em’, simply withdrew up to Don Paunchero’s formation gathered on the large hill beyond. When Hawkwood’s men eventually traversed to the fringes of the woods they were dismayed to see such a large formation of guerrillas, unmistakably led by the portly Don Paunchero himself. 

Hawkwood's men were uncharacteristically shaken. He silently prayed Ranaldo’s Portuguese reinforcements would have the good sense to not dally and follow through in support. Hawkwood was concerned the cunning Don would realise the vulnerability of the thin allied line on the Anglo-Portuguese left flank. If he did, he concluded he and his men would bore the brunt of it.

Hawkwoods’ lads took the brunt of it. A bold move from Don Paunchero, sending a large group storming down the hillside and crashing into the woods. Hawkwood’s small detachment of light infantry did their best to get off a few haphazard rounds, rattled by the size of the force barrelling towards them. Now they were fighting for their lives. Desperate fighting amongst the trees against a larger force of emboldened guerrillas. They started to make a fighting withdrawal.

Nearby groups witnessed the red-jacketed British retreating from the woods in disorder, negatively impacting the allied Force Morale. The courageous Lieutenant Hawkwood was mortally wounded in the fierce engagement. The guerrillas soon withdrew to avoid overstretch, buoyed by their victory back to the safety of their own lines. Rousing cheers could be heard, as the Don excitedly flourished his red wide-brimmed hat. 

By now, most of Don Paunchero’s men were in deployed as he’d planned. The threat from the allied skirmishers mostly dealt with for now, whilst the rifles on the central hill were pinned from musketry from the village. He was grateful and proud of Sancho Panza, Jose and Gregorio’s guerrillas. They were now taking up a defensive position behind the villages stones walls after providing staunch resistance - slowing the allied advance enough to allow the Don’s groups to reinforce and deploy in good order.

Admittedly, they’d had some difficulty putting out fires in the village, as wayward shot from the enemy rifles up on the hill had managed to set the thatch alight. But the main allied forces were still delayed and, importantly, their resolve had been greatly diminished. The Don’s scouts informed him that only now, with all his guerrillas set behind strong defences, keenly watching the exit of the Devil’s Defile, were the allies mustering to attempt the deadly ravine…

To be continued. After the game, John suggested that ‘Don Paunchero and his men had delayed the Anglo-Portuguese long enough and could safely give ground, falling back into the valley to join with reinforcements from across the border. Only time will tell if Mourhino and Dundas can do any better in the valley than they did in the hills.

What an entertaining game it was too and an excellent introduction to Sharp Practice! For myself and David R. Our thanks to our stalwart opponent, Peter, for showing how to do things properly, and special thanks to John for not only devising the campaign but also providing his own terrain and letting us play with his fine miniatures! 

Finally, for those interested, John has kindly agreed for me to make the ‘With Fire and Sword’ scenario, character profiles and group listings available to all, which can find over on my Google Drive. Cheers John!

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